"STEWART vs. THE SUE"

Summary

    In researching this landmark case, it becomes quite apparent that "Stewart vs. The Sue" was a deliberate attack on discrimination and the recently declared unconstitutional "Civil Rights Act Of 1875." The Reverend Harvey Johnson who was one of the leaders in numerous struggles for racial advancement assisted the Stewart sisters in their successful attack on the "Sue" and discrimination in interstate commerce. (For more on the life of Reverend Dr. Harvey Johnson, follow the links section below.) In all probability, from this success came the idea to form the "Mutual United Brotherhood of Liberty", which on a local level compared to the "NAACP" of a later period. The Brotherhood set goals, "to use all legal means within our power to procure and maintain our rights as citizens of this common country." As the Brotherhood's president, Reverend Harvey Johnson is believed to have written it's constitution which opened with the following statement, "Since it is a scriptural truth that God has made of one blood all nations of men, and since it is equally true by the Declaration of Independence that all men are endowed with the inalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness; therefore it is the solemn duty of every man to seek to maintain these rights." Frederick Douglass spoke at a soon arranged meeting, to attract public interest (It is possible that the Stewart sisters personally met Frederick Douglass).

    The "Mutual United Brotherhood of Liberty" immediately attacked legislation which was deterring the progress of African Americans. These "Black Laws" were statutes held over since slavery that discriminated against African Americans. The Brotherhood took court action to remove the word white from the Maryland State Code and helped to repeal those obsolete laws which created racial inequality. It also opened the bar to African Americans in 1888, thereby permitting two African Americans to practice law in 1889. Ten years after the Stewart sisters won their case, "Stewart vs. The Sue" became one of the cases used in the Supreme court decision "Plessy v. Ferguson."

"Plessy vs. Ferguson"

    In 1890, Louisiana enacted a statute providing "that all companies carrying passengers in their coaches in this state shall provide equal but separate accommodations for the white and colored races..." Homer Plessy was a member of a Creole group, who in 1892 successfully challenged a Louisiana law which mandated segregation on interstate transportation. On June 7,1892, Plessy, in what was probably a deliberately pre arranged action took a train from New Orleans to Covington, Louisiana, sat in a railroad car assigned to white persons and was arrested. Challenging his arrest on grounds that it violated the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendments to the Constitution, resulted in a 1896 Supreme Court decision which ruled that the Fourteenth Amendment, which guarantees equality of the two races before the law, did not prohibit racial segregation. The impact of the Plessy decision was that it set the precedent that "separate" facilities for blacks and whites were constitutional as long as they were "equal."

    "Separate but Equal" became law, because "If opponents of Jim Crow laws wanted a Supreme Court decision that would settle the issue of constitutionality of state imposed racial segregation, they chose the worst possible test case."(2) To begin with, six of the Supreme Court Justices who decided the case was had served as lawyers with railroads. Justice Stephen Field had been associated with the Southern Pacific Railroad and justice John M. Harlan and Justice David Brewer were also previous railroad lawyers. The seven justices who had previous ties with railroads were all honorable men, but it is no surprise that they would have some sympathy with public carriers. They had experienced enough troubles with state regulations, even without trying to champion the cause of African Americans who were neither large shippers or lucrative passengers.

    One of the case's most damaging facets was the very practical consideration that railroads could furnish equal accommodations. As a matter of fact they could provide identical facilities for whites and African Americans. Coupled with this was fact that the court had come dangerously close to approving Jim Crow laws for railroads in prior decisions. Public carriers had been one of early targets for Jim Crow because they could actually provided two classes of service for passengers, and universally assigned African Americans to second-class facilities. It became easy to graft segregation laws onto both the first and second-class accommodations which they offered.

    Justice John Marshall Harlan of Kentucky, who had formerly been a slave holder, wrote what many consider the most famous dissent in the Supreme Court's history. It was clear to him the direction in which the justices were trying to steer the court. He stated, "Further, if this statute of Louisiana is considered with the personal liberty of citizens, why may not the State require the separation in railroad coaches of native and naturalized citizens of the United States, or of Protestants and Roman Catholics?"

In other words:
    "The Negro under the Court's guardianship, was reduced to a despairing second-class citizenship: voteless in the south; helpless in the face of constant and brutal aggression; indicted by all white grand juries... denied access to places of public accommodations; represented in public office by those whose very elections were dependent on their promise to white voters to double and redouble his disabilities; forced to scrounge and cadge for an education; segregated in every phase of his life; condemned to separate and unequal schools and public facilities of every kind; and with no place for redress of his grievances except to the court that had approved the devices used to reduce him to his helpless and almost hopeless degradation."(3)

    The Supreme Court, like Congress in the words of Senator Salmon P. Chase of Ohio, who speaking during an earlier period declared, "Congress has no more power to make a slave than to make a king." [Ref. DIASPORA, A GLOBAL BLACK MAGAZINE, Sept 1996]
 

    The lone dissenter, Justice Harlan's words proved to be prophetic when he said, "Our constitution is color blind, and neither knows nor tolerates classes among citizens. In respect to civil rights, all citizens are equal before the law... In my opinion, the judgement this day rendered will, in time, prove to be quite as pernicious as the decision made by this tribunal in the Dred Scott case... The present decision, it may well be apprehended, will not only stimulate aggressions, more or less brutal and irritating, upon the admitted rights of colored citizens, but will encourage the belief that it is possible, by means of state enactments, to defeat the beneficent purposed which the people of the United States had in view when they adopted the recent amendments of the Constitution."

    The "separate but equal" doctrine was extended to cover other areas of public life such as restaurants, theaters, restrooms, and public schools. Not until sixty-four years later, in 1954, in the Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka Supreme Court decision would the "separate but equal" doctrine be struck down.
 
 

NEWSPAPER ARTICLES
The following article appeared in the Baltimore American
And Commercial Advertiser on Tuesday, February 3, 1885

COLORED PEOPLES RIGHTS

The decision of Judge Morris in the case of Martha Stewart and others against the Steamer Sue will doubtless lead to an improvement in the accommodations of Colored passengers who pay first - class fares. The decision to the extent of requiring that all first class passengers, regardless of color, shall be accommodated in the same cabin or saloon. It recognizes that a regulation demanded by the great majority of passengers may be a reasonable one, and as such maintainable in law. But the decision does require that the accommodations given to Colored holders of first class tickets shall be as good as those accorded to white first - class passengers. This is so obviously just that it must appeal to the good sense of all.

There was conflict of testimony as to the comfort of the cabins allotted to Colored first class passengers, according to the statements on one side, the discomfort was very great. This is contradicted on the other side. But it is hardly claimed that the accommodations of the Colored passengers were as good as those given to the white passengers. This however, is what all Colored holders of first class tickets are entitled to and now that their rights appear to be enforceable at law, the companies will doubtless find it to their interest to fix up the cabins for this class of fares with the comforts and conveniences furnished to the most favored class.

The following articles appeared in the Northern Neck News (A Virginia Newspaper)
on Friday, February 6 1885

Decision Against the owners of the Steamer Sue

Baltimore, February 2. - Judge Morris, in the U. S. District Court today, rendered his decision in the case of Martha Stewart and three others, colored, against the Baltimore, Chesapeake, and Richmond Steamboat Co. The litigants purchased first class passage tickets on the steamboat Sue, after having been told they would not be admitted to the sleeping apartment occupied by white females. This suit was brought to recover $500 damages each for exclusion from that apartment. Judge Morris said it was the right of the common carrier of passengers to make a regulation for a separation of different classes of passengers. But they have no right to make any difference in the comfort and convenience to those who pay equal fare. The forward cabin assigned to the colored females was not in as comfortable condition as that assigned to white females and he therefore awarded a decree of $100, to each of the libelants. Notice of appeal was given.

And in another article from the same edition of the Northern Neck News

The decision of Judge Morris, elsewhere noted in our columns, in the case of Martha Stewart and others, against the steamer Sue, awarding damages to the plaintiffs, is a most important one, and if sustained by the Supreme Court, to which counsel for the steamboat company have given notice that they would file an appeal, must necessarily result in one of two things, either a promiscuous intermingling upon a perfect equality in all respects of both white and colored upon the different lines of travel, or such a rearrangement in the structure of steamers as to afford accommodations equally safe, pleasant, convenient and comfortable in all respects to both races. While the first of these will never be tolerated, or at least quietly submitted to by the white people, the latter seems to us to be utterly impracticable. We regard this and all other questions growing out of the relations which are to permanently subsist between the white and colored races of this country as problems of difficult solution, and of far more vital importance to both races and to the permanent peace and happiness and prosperity of the nation than it seems to be commonly considered, or might appear upon the surface. But it is useless to attempt to disguise the fact that they must be met, and the statesman who can solve them so as to result in the interests and welfare, and at the same time to the entire satisfaction of both races, will be entitled to the lasting gratitude of the American people.

While we are not of that number who regard the Negro merely a connecting link between a man and a monkey, devoid of soul and utterly unaccountable for his actions to an all wise being, we do regard him as so entirely different from, and inferior to the Caucasian race, socially, morally and intellectually as forever to forbid him being placed in any sense of the word upon an equal footing with a race universally acknowledged to be the highest type of humanity.
 

Endnotes
2. Loren Miller. The Petitioners. Pantheon Books, 1966. p.166

3. 3 Ibid.; p. 180